How to calibrate a monitor - The Dell 2408WFP Ultrasharp 24" Display v2

For most of us, understanding how to colour calibrate a monitor is no easy task. There are so many variables to consider that many tend to just give up on calibrating their displays or choose to ignore it and hope for the best.

But photography enthusiasts do, and should, care. Spending countless hours working on your photographs only to see them look very different in print, or in somebody else's monitor, is extremely frustrating. Even if you rarely print your photographs, if your monitor's colours are way off, they'll look weird (or at least different than you intended) on other displays.

Before I get into the details of how to calibrate your monitor, specifically the Dell 2408WFP Ultrasharp 24" Display, let me start with some background.

Why I got into colour calibrating my monitors

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For years, I've always used Apple Cinema Displays and never really bothered to calibrate them. They were always close enough that it wasn't a problem. I got used to the slight colour shift and could easily work with it. Several years ago I moved to a different country and couldn't take the monitor with me, so I sold my beloved Apple display.

A few years ago, when the time came to buy a new monitor, Apple had just released the new ones that used the then new Mini Display port. My MacBook Pro was incompatible with it, so I ended up buying the Dell 2408WFP Ultrasharp 24" Display. It was horrible out of the box. It was extremely bright and the colours were not only wrong, but super saturated. As it was, it was useless for photography.

So, for the first time, I found myself having to learn how to calibrate a monitor.

Colour calibrating my first monitor

I quickly realised that calibrating a monitor is way harder than I expected. Visually calibrating using the built in tools in Mac OS X is next to impossible. I ended up having to buy a hardware calibration tool. I settled for the i1Display2 by X-rite. While it worked well at the time, X-rite never updated the software past the PowerPC era, so it always relied on Rosetta). Even after 10 years of Apple moving on from the PowerPC chips, X-rite didn't seem to care. WIth Lion it's now useless.

Anyway, as I explained back then, calibrating that Dell monitor wasn't easy and it took a lot of trial and error, but I finally managed to get it close enough. I found the colour shifted slightly as time went by and recalibrating every couple of months or so was enough.

Then Snow Leopard came out and I refused to install Rosetta. I emailed X-rite asking if they planned on updating the software. They said no.

Right about that time I bought a new MacBook Pro that came with the new display port, so I also got an Apple Cinema Display. As before, the colour was beautiful and I didn't need to calibrate the monitor. It does have a slight pinkish hue, but it's close enough that it doesn't bother me.

The Dell display was used as a second monitor and sat uncalibrated for a long time. Then I moved into a single monitor setup and the Dell went into storage. But a few weeks ago I pulled it out and hooked it to an old MacBook Pro running Leopard (with Rosetta) and I decided to see if I could calibrate it and compare it to the Apple Cinema Display.

Colour calibrating the Dell. Again

As before, it required some tweaking, but I got it close enough. The first tries with the i1Display2 gave me terrible results. The screen was just too bright and the colours way over saturated. So contrary to the instructions, I reduced the brightness by reducing the RGB colours and that did it. Here's a step by step of how I calibrated the Dell monitor:

  1. In Preset Modes > Custom (RGB) lower the RGB colours individually to half. In the case of the Dell, bring them all down to 50
  2. In the same menu, select Color Setting Mode - Graphics
  3. In the same menu, select Gamma - Mac (if you're using a Mac)
  4. In Brightness & Contrast lower brightness to 50
  5. Run the hardware monitor calibration tool (the i1Display2 in my case)

That should get you close. If you have this monitor but no hardware calibration tool, try these settings:

  • Contrast: 100
  • Brightness: 52
  • Red: 55
  • Green: 49
  • Blue: 51

Those are the numbers I get and should at least get you in the ballpark. Of course, every monitor is different so it's always best to use a dedicated calibration tool, but given Dell monitors come radioactive bright and saturated out of the box, this should help. Then maybe run the software calibration to visually get it closer.

Comparing the Dell to the Apple Cinema Display is interesting. The colours look almost the same but there is a slight difference in hue. But the Apple Cinema Display renders the darks beautifully, while the Dell tends to pixelate them. This is especially noticeable in gradients. For example, a photograph of an afternoon sky that goes from very dark blue at the top to light blue at the bottom looks great on the Apple, but the Dell can't cope with the gradient very well and shows awful banding.